Thursday, May 26, 2011

AUSTRIA UNCORKED - LOS ANGELES TASTING EVENT RECAP


Austria Uncorked

Austria Uncorked, a showing of Austrian wines at the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills May 2nd, 2011, promised a bevy of fabulous white wines to sample - after all, highly structured whites are what Austria is best known for worldwide.

If Austria has a national grape, it would have to be GrĂ¼ner Veltliner.  The food-friendly, mineral-driven GruVee was all over the room at this event, with most tables pouring several versions.  Riesling was popular, too.  Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also popped up from time to time.  Riesling has a reputation as a sweet wine for some, but the Austrian expression of the grape is quite dry and sometimes so mineral-driven that the fruit is almost obscured.

Despite the grace and elegance shown by the white wines, it was the red wine from Austria which really shone. BlaufrankischZweigelt and St. Laurent are grapes which are all well under the radar for American wine drinkers, unheralded - if not unknown - to most.  Examples of Austrian Pinot Noir showed earthy minerality, light texture and low alcohol levels.  In fact, I don't recall seeing many wines at Austria Uncorked with an alcohol level higher than 14%.

My favorite stop was the table where Birgit Braunstein presented her wines and those of her husband, Martin Pasler.  Their vineyards were planted 70 years ago by her grandfather on land that's been in her family for hundreds of years.  Several of their wines ended up as favorites of mine from this event.

GruvyAs is the case at wine tasting events where there is a proliferation of one particular type of wine, I experienced palate fatigue and the Gruner Veltliners all started to taste the same.  I've experienced the same thing at events that were heavy on Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Albarino.  Mixing it up made for a good palate cleanser. I'd taste whites for a while, then reds, then back to whites.  I even went across the property and sampled a few Ribera Tempranillos at another event going on at the same time.  As good as those Spanish wines were, I didn't stay long. I couldn't wait to get back to Austria.

Austria is roughly at the same latitude as Burgundy, but with more dramatic temperature swings.  Hot days and cool nights help produce wines with aromatic, full-bodied character.  35 grape varieties are authorized for use in making quality wine in Austria.  About a third of the grapes are red wine, another third Gruner Veltliner.  Field blends are common in Austria, where they are called gemischten Satz.  These wines are blends in which the different grapes are harvested and vinified at once.

After the event, I retired to the SLS bar to go over my notes.  Next to me was a young couple engaged in spirited discussion with Wolfgang Puck.  They talked on a number of topics related to food and wine - I couldn't help overhearing - and it wasn't surprising to discover that Puck likes Austrian wines.  He has a soft spot for the wines of Alsace as well.

It has occurred to me before - and was brought into sharp focus at Austria Uncorked - that red wines are more about taste while white wines are more about feeling.  I'll close with a few of my favorite tastes and feelings of the event.

The event was staged by the Austrian Wine Marketing Board and the Austrian Trade Commission, and event was the featured event for Austria Wine Week LA, in which a handful of tastings were staged around SoCal.

The Wines

Brigit BraunsteinAs I mentioned earlier, the wines of Brigit Braunstein and Martin Pasler were my favorites.  Their vineyards are in Burgenland, on Lake Neusiedl in the Neusiedlersee - Hugelland region.  Braunstein took over her family's winegrowing business in the mid 1990s and produced her first vintage in 1996.  She says it was "a moment of real happiness in my life."  Her appearance at Austria Uncorked constituted her first visit to the U.S.

Braunstein poured two white wines of note, a Welschriesling and a Weissburgunder.  Welschriesling has no relation to the Riesling grape and is of unclear origin.  Weissburgunder is better known as Pinot Blanc.  The former has a lovely, aromatic nose sporting green peppers and flowers, while the latter has a creamy, fruity taste of peaches and pears.  Both these whites feature great acidity, but that was not an uncommon tasting note throughout the room.

Braunstein's reds really bowled me over.  Her Zweigelt - the most-planted red grape in Austria - has a beautiful cherry nose and a huge cherry taste.  The Blaufrankisch shows its chalky, limestone soil with an earthy nose and mineral-laced strawberries on the palate.  The St. Laurent - a grape which is a child of Pinot Noir bearing the same cantankerous traits as its parent - is a complete delight.  Her Oxhoft red blend marries Blaufrankisch, Zweigelt and Cabernet Sauvignon for a wine which displays enormous red fruit on the nose and on the brilliant palate.

As if these treats were not enough, we proceeded to the dessert wines.  A pair of Botrytis-infected beauties were poured.  The Beerenauslese blends Welschriesling for acidity, Goldburgerfor the fruit and Neuburger for the sweetness.  Sweet pears and apricots show in this delicious dessert wine.  The Trockenbeerenauslese is a late harvest Pinot Noir showing the chalky limestone soil in its sultry sugar.

More Wines

Judith Beck - '09 Zweigelt shows extreme earthiness and brilliant fruit flavors at once.

J. Heinrich Winery - '08 Cuvee of Blaufrankisch, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot presents a very smokey nose and spicy red fruit.

Juris Winery - '08 St. Laurent has a dirty, funky nose, and I mean that in a great way.  Tart and dry, very interesting.

Rosenhof Winery - Four dessert wines - Beerenauslese, two Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein - that are sweet with great acidity.

Johanneshof Reinisch Winery - A 2010 Rotgipfler - have you had that grape? - is a white with a nutty salinity and citrus fruit.  Also, an $89 '06 St. Laurent which has tannins as smooth as silk.

Salomon Unhof Winery - A 2009 Gruner Veltliner Reserve from the Lindberg Vineyard is creamy and full with a citrus finish.

Turk Winery - A 2009 Gruner Veltliner from the Kremser Sandgrube Vineyard has great acidity and a spicy citrus zest taste.

R & A Pfaffl Wine Estate - A no-oak 2010 Zweigelt with bright cherry nose and flavors would be great chilled on the deck this summer.  Their '08 St. Laurent shows fantastic minerals on the nose and a dry, dark cherry taste.

Kracher Winery - They poured six dessert wines.  Tops were the '08 Cuvee of Welshriesling and Chardonnay - done in steel, but showing a smokey sweetness - and the '08 ScheurebeTrockenbeerenauslese which is viscous, sweet and clean.

I enjoyed stopping at each table at Austria Uncorked, and limiting myself to just these wines I've mentioned seems an injustice.  There were so many great tasting Blaufrankisch, Zeigelt and St. Laurent wines - not to mention all the Gruner Veltliners and Rieslings - that this piece could have gone on for pages and pages.  If you are not familiar with Austrian wines, get familiar.  You'll be doing yourself and your palate a favor.